One of the very well-known commandments that appears in this week’s reading of the Torah is the injunction not to place a stumbling block in front of someone who cannot see. Interestingly enough, Rashi in commenting upon and in explaining this commandment, does not treat it literally.
The Torah does not deal with people who are so evil as to purposely and knowingly place a stumbling block before someone who is unable to see. Rather, the Rabbis interpreted the words to apply to situations where one’s own bias, prejudice, financial interest or social status misleads someone who has approached him or her for advice on an issue.
If I am interested in buying a piece of real estate and I am in the real estate business, and someone approaches me for advice as to whether to purchase that exact piece of real estate, one is forbidden to advise him incorrectly to gain the financial advantage for himself. This is a rather blatant example of how the self-interest of one person can cause an unsuspecting other person who is unaware of the self -interests of the person from whom he is seeking advice. One seeking the advice is blind to the prejudice and self-interest of the person granting the advice and invokes the proverbial stumbling block placed before the person seeking direction. In the canons of ethics that exist in legal and related professions, such behavior is grounds for the accusation of malfeasance and intentional malpractice.
In our complicated and stressful society there have arisen numerous professions devoted to giving advice to others and receiving a fee for so doing. Such professions as financial planners, estate managers and programmers, therapists for both mental and physical wounds, marriage and divorce counselors and other areas in which current society is populated, if not even dominated by these advice givers. No one can expect perfection from another human being and many times the advice or planning that is suggested and adopted may turn out to be destructive. While the Torah does not expect perfection from those from whom we seek advice, it does expect honesty and transparency. There always is a tinge of self-interest on the part of the counselor or therapist involved. After all, this is the manner in which that person makes a living. Yet, as far as humanly possible, the Torah does demand objectivity, fairness, and intelligence when giving such advice, whether it be from a professional in the field or even from a friend or neighbor.
We are repeatedly warned not to volunteer advice to others in areas where we are not requested to, or if we are not expert in those fields. People tend to invest spiritual leaders with knowledge that they may not really possess. It is dangerous and an enormous responsibility to give advice to others. In biblical times, prophecy was available but in our world it no longer exists. Both the person seeking advice and the one granting such advice should be very careful not to create the stumbling block that will cause the ‘blind man’ to fall.
Rabbi Berel Wein